What do you think are the most important things about practical homestead-scale permaculture for someone new to it to understand if they just want to grow lots of food and don't want a huge amount of theory or confusion? And how would you teach them?
Zones and sectors are what the PDC I'm doing started with. Not everyone is aware of the path of the sun through the seasons, and how trees, hills, and structures impact the shade - knowing this is very important. Zoning definitely makes things easier, but is it essential? And what are the best ways to teach it?
"There's no such thing as waste" is a good thing to be teaching, so that we can value the 'waste' of one thing as a resource for another - e.g. finding the best ways to distribute animal manures to where we want plants growing.
Looking at things holistically... E.g. chickens are not egg laying machines, they have scratching and foraging behaviour that can either be a help or a hindrance depending on where they're placed, they also have needs, which we can design to provide for them either passively or by integrating them into the garden. The land we prepare for potatoes this year isn't just for the purpose of growing potatoes, but also is a way of clearing land for other plants next year. One action can have many benefits.
What are some other essential things about permaculture that you would want to teach to someone wanting to learn the basics in a practical way?
If you were doing a permaculture property design with someone fairly new to permaculture, would you explain the basics of permaculture first? Or start working on the design and then point out as you're working together how things on the design fit together and why things are best placed in some spots and not others?
I like to emphasize that we're trying to work with Mother Nature instead of trying to control her. "Better than organic"
As for fundamentals, what little teaching I do is focused on practical concepts they can copy and then expand from. Kind of like Paul's "bricks".
Some of my favorites are Stacking functions, Zero waste, Guild/food forest, Perennials instead of annuals, Mulch and Microclimates.
"Hundreds of years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the type of car I drove... But the world may be different because I did something so bafflingly crazy that it becomes a tourist destination"
Since the goal is “organic or better”, with an emphasis on the better part, I think I really became a Permie when working with wine cap mushrooms. The reason is that prior to working with wine caps I thought of soil as a bunch of chemicals with a bit of life thrown in to boot. I thought “sure, nitrogen fixing bacteria are great but a bunch of blood meal is far better.” Technically I was still organic by using that blood meal but my thinking was still chemical in nature. I bought a lot of blood meal over the years. I don’t have a problem with blood meal, but now I see it as unnecessary.
When I first planted zucchini in woodchips aged about a year, I was amazed by how incredibly fast, lush and green they grew. That a heavy feeder like zucchini could grow so well with absolutely no chemical fertility added blew my mind. I dug around a bit and the fungi hyphae were intricately wrapped around the zucchini roots. It was blatantly obvious to me that the fungi were feeding the plants. These might have been the most healthy plants I have ever grown. This turned my idea of soil on its head. I now see soil as a bunch of life with a little bit of chemistry.
So Kate, the short version is to encourage the view that soil is much less about specific chemistry (NPK ratings) and much more about symbiotic lifeforms supporting each other.
This view has radically changed the way I now look at soil.
When I first began to study permaculture the most helpful concept was to imitate nature's methodology; which greatly encouraged me to implement the "observe" principle of permaculture. The other concept I quickly grasped was to build my soil; as healthy soil seems to be the foundation of a successful permaculture system.
By beginning with those concepts I was able to "build up" from there with my various projects, starting with permaculture gardening (since plants dying from my mistakes isn't generally as bad as animals dying, LOL). Once I had a good grasp on the gardening aspects of permaculture, I began to integrate the animals into the system (starting with the poultry, followed by rabbits, and then the pigs).
I still consider myself a bit of a novice, and haven't worked up to permaculture buildings/structures, yet and may, or may not, get to that point, depending on my personal needs & wants (and skills).
Since I already had a solid background of gardening and animal husbandry, this was the easiest way for me to start learning the fundamentals of permaculture. I would assume the person's knowledge/skills/experience would play a part in determining the best starting point for learning permaculture.
I think you and I are on two sides of the same coin, that coin being the soil. More specifically, the metaphoric coin is building up soil.
Seems like you have taken the animal husbandry route to soil health, and why not start there? It is a great way to both fertilize, not only with nutrients but also the LIFE in the animal manure.
My substitute for animals is the mushrooms which serve a similar purpose. I imagine that you are getting a great buildup of great soil bacteria. In my case, my “soil” is dominated by fungi. In either case, the plants benefit because they have microbial help arising from healthy soil.
I think everyone's ideas of the base principles is great! It's always helpful to hear other people describe the same simple idea in their own words.
I would describe the fundamentals in two frameworks.
1- Like the OP had said, zones and sectors. What I would call myself " observations, effort, and using natural energies (sun/wind/slope)" Permaculture design usually deals with a dwelling as the focal point of the design. Daily effort to maintain the property is most intense closest to the house (generally), and decreases in quality and quantity as you increase distance from the home. While working or moving through any part of the yard, it is important to constantly be letting your eyes wander and be curious as to what is going on big and small. Daydreaming and thinking about the property, having lots of observational data to guide and inspire design is crucial. With a grasp of the effort flow and the data to describe its needs, designing to use the available solar heat, or wind drying alley, or wet low area etc . . . will be almost as self directing as a math equation calculating a result.
2 - Use knowledge of biology/ecology/geology/other experiences to tap into nature's already functioning workflow. This second permaculture principle is the mindset of a personal competition to tap into as many free natural workforces and resources as possible. Don't dig and turn and amend soil with shovels and chemicals. Disturb the top inch or two of soil and plant with deep taprooted annuals to dig and compost the area for you. Worms and other underground dwellers will burrow around eating and dropping their own packets of bio activated fertilizers. Or for another example, use sacrificial plants as living traps to concentrate pests for easy removal. Use yard cuttings and treefall debris as mulch rather than purchase it. Propagate plants from cuttings around the local area.
I think that with these two principles a person can attain the tools and mindset needed to apply permaculture to anything they want.
This one is a challenge ;) I started writing a response and promptly got lost in the weeds ;) 'cuz Permaculture is like that. In my opinion it has to begin with the ethics or it isn't Permaculture. The ethics aren't a huge amount of theory, they're the practical decision making tools applied at every decision point. I think it's probably important to tell people there are not any techniques that define permaculture, i.e. you don't have to do swales or have an herb spiral.
Permaculture is a whole system approach. It teaches us to see everything in relation and connection to everything else. It is probably worth emphasizing this by beginning with water management. Water management is both fundamental to the success of everything you might wish to do on a site and one of the first systems you need to put in place on a site. Arguably The first system, but we're generally not dealing with blank slates... Anyway - Water management as a key element to their entire project and as a teaching tool showing the interconnections and relationships of the system's elements. BTW, this takes one all the way down to the Mollison classic analysis of a chicken. It also leads into Zones, because Zones aren't geography, zones are system workflow diagrams. And that leads into function stacking, because Zones, going from one out to five, are areas of decreasing intensity of function stacking of your labor. Zone 1 is highly labor intensive and each action ought to have multiple purposes, but when you get out to zone 5, your labor is nearly zero and of very limited impact.
Holmgren's twelve principles are probably the most concise guide to teaching Permaculture that I'm aware of, but I get that they're not all obviously "practical". One of them is practical enough, at many levels, that it ought to be early on in any "practical" permaculture teaching - Use small, slow solutions. Why is it important? Because people get totally overwhelmed by how much they have to do and throw up their hands in despair. And it's entirely understandable. We're asking them to make a paradigm shift. To see their world from a new perspective that changes how they see - well, everything. So here's a really important concept - You Don't need to do it all at once. You ought not to do it all at once ;)
At the end of the day, if what the class is really after is growing lots of food asap and not changing their entire lives (because whether you thought it was going to or not, learning permaculture chnges your entire life), then I suggest teaching them French Intensive Gardening and leave Permaculture for the ones that come back next year and ask "What more can I do?"
If I'm going to do a design for someone, whatever their knowledge level about any aspect of the process, after a really brief elevator speech style intro to Permaculture, I'm going to begin with asking them what it is they want from the project. As we work our way through what they want, I'll ask lots of leading questions - you said you want to grow your own food; what do you like to eat? Are you willing to take on the responsibilities of having livestock? I can't design with them if I don't know what their goals are, and they probably don't actually know what they are themselves. They may say "We want to grow all of our own food" But they're living in a cold temperate area and cannot live without their citrus - and that's just not going to grow where they live ;) As we go through the process there will be natural opportunities to explain why Permaculture suggests this solution to that issue and I'll try to give responses that don't leave them with their eyes glazing over ;) If you can get it 'right', the way you present the choices leads the client to ask for the reasoning and you can educate them about the permaculture design process in that way.
Thank you, Kate, for bringing this subject up. You've made me think about teaching and all that entails and I've been away from all of that focused on building our own homestead and permaculture design. It's fun to re-visit this facet and recognize ways in which my thinking about it has changed, or not, with our experiences on our own design.
If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. -T.S. Eliot such a short, tiny ad:
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